A few weeks ago, on 22 December 2016, white supremacists spray-painted a swastika on a Sikh Gurdwara in downtown Calgary. It is not the first time, nor the last that white supremacy has reared its ugly head in our direction, spitting on our doorstep and reminding us to stay hidden inside.
When my grandfather first immigrated to Cambridge, ON in 1966, there was no place for Sikhs in the growing industrial town. No community centre, temple, or Baba Bazar. Last summer, I finally bothered asking him about his early years in Canada. Gathering a few photo albums I had found in our basement, I walked over to his house. Imprinted on the photos were stories of repetitive remittances, tenuous yet unwavering marriages, de facto racial segregation, lost apartment buildings, and shiny American muscle cars.
Holding our family archives in my hands, I knocked at his door. Opening to a random page, I starred at a photo that showed my grandfather, dressed in all white, shaking hands with an older man who I knew to be Sri Satguru Jagjit Singh Ji. It must have been 1996 – the plastic-covered white silk three-seater couch behind them was a dead giveaway. Showing the photograph to my baba, I asked about how his interest in the Namdhari practice of Sikhism strained his relationship with the local mainstream Sikh community. "You know that Gurdwara on Roseville Road?" he said flatly as he rhythmically passed the prayer beads through his fingers, "I set it up in the 1970s with a few other men. I served as treasurer until the early 1990s when I finally converted."
For about thirty unprompted minutes, he talked at length about the struggles, challenges and barriers behind establishing a gurdwara. I noticed points when he would fast-forward, draw out seemingly insignificant details and use my intermittent shuffling to occlude the cracks and crevices in his story. In these openings, I imagined alcoholism, racist attacks, shaky family allegiances and other memories buried for good reason. Unable to reckon with these unspeakable truths, I listened patiently as my grandfather lamented about the gurdwara closing down. "What is the point of building a newer, more majestic gurdwara?" he asked, "Are they just going to abandon the other one? It was our home."
Growing up, I would reluctantly drag myself out of bed on Sundays and let my parents take me to this gurdwara. I remember one day coming across a small swastika carved into the wooden steps leading up to the main hall. Carving a few more lines into the wood, I watched as the swastika slowly fade into the woodwork. Masking the swastika and forgetting about it seemed like the only appropriate response. My journey into whiteness has demanded extolling the virtues of white liberal multiculturalism while hiding an ugly underbelly of xenophobic violence.
The new gurdwara is going to be built on the other side of town, where all the Indians live. Our family migrated out of little India to West Galt in the early 1990s so that I could attend a better elementary school. Highland Public School promised a full french immersion program and an (almost) all-white student body. Moving to Summer Place would surely let us fall neatly into whiteness. For me, those years were the beginning of my journey into whiteness – removing the smell of tadka from my clothes, refusing to learn punjabi, wearing sunscreen every day, learning how to ice-skate and ski, wearing abercrombie and fitch, taking french as a second language. And it worked – how else can I explain why I cried so much when I first watched Richard Linklater's coming-of-age drama Boyhood?
Reading about the swastika markings in Calgary and returning to all of these memories, I feel a pain in my body. No longer is the swastika from my childhood simply a carving on an abandoned building, but instead, the unwavering spirit of white supremacy crafted onto my home, etched into my skin.
What if I had not removed the swastika carving? What if I had reported it? Or photographed it? Or screamed and shouted about it? Or touched it? Or written out Ik Onkar beside it?
A small part of me hopes that the swastika graffiti on the gurdwara in Calgary is preserved as a memorial – an ever-lasting reminder of the seduction and dangers of whiteness. A bigger part of me prays that it has already been washed away.